As the NCAA wrestling season begins to take shape, so too does the race for the 2017 Hodge Trophy. Last season, three-time NCAA champion Alex Dieringer (Oklahoma State) edged 2016 NCAA champion Zain Retherford (Penn State) in a close decision. This season Retherford is, again, one of the favorites, but he isn’t the only strong contender for the award. Today we break down the top five Hodge contenders but, before we do, let’s take a look at those outside the top-five that we’re keeping an eye on. As a reminder, the criteria for the award are record, number of pins, dominance, past credentials, quality of competition, sportsmanship/citizenship, and heart.
Bo Nickal, Penn State, 184 7-0, 7 falls
Nickal has a very simple path to winning the Hodge after starting the season pinning every opponent he has faced. However, in this case, simple does not equate to easy. Bo should be in the running for the most dominant wrestler award if he can come close to matching his early pace, but he’ll almost certainly have to beat Gabe Dean (Cornell) to win a national title. He certainly could, and doing so would give him a boost in the quality of competition category, but, for now, he looks like an underdog in that match. That keeps him outside the top five.
Jason Nolf, Penn State, 157 8-0 5 falls, 3 techs
Nolf is one of the most likely wrestlers in the country to go undefeated on his way to a national title this season. However, without a previous national title and without a big name rival, he will have to be far and away more dominant than any other wrestler or see most of his rivals take a loss, to have much chance at the Hodge. With such a strong field of contenders, that doesn’t look likely. Going strictly by criteria, Nolf probably deserves to be somewhere in the top-five, but we shouldn’t forget this is an award voted on by human beings. Given the track record of those voters, it seems unlikely he ends up with the trophy.
5) Kyle Snyder, Ohio State, 285 4-0 3 falls, 1 major
While he is outstanding and has demonstrated a newfound ability to pin this season, Snyder has already seen his schedule limited and there is no Nick Gwiazdowski (NC State) to beat in the 2017 finals. This puts Snyder behind the eight ball as far as the Hodge is concerned. Still, he is a defending NCAA champion, among other titles, that will almost certainly go undefeated and there may only be two wrestlers at the weight that can keep him to a decision. If college wrestling gets a little nutty, as it does from time to time, Snyder could find himself in contention at the end of the year, but he’ll have a hard time beating the four wrestlers in front of him if they are also undefeated.
4) Isaiah Martinez, Illinois, 165 6-0 2 falls, 2 techs, 1 major, 1 decision
A loss to Nolf last season, a loss he avenged twice, kept Martinez out of the Hodge discussion, but he is off to a great start at 165, already owning a solid win over fourth-ranked Daniel Lewis (Missouri) this season. Martinez’s resume is sparkling with two NCAA titles and just one career loss, but he has not, historically, put up bonus points at the incredible rates we’ve seen from other contenders. He’ll have to improve in that area if he wants the Hodge. Keep an eye on Isaiah over the next six weeks. We should see him at the Midlands and he has a January 20th date with second-ranked Logan Massa (Michigan). What his bonus rate looks like after that will be telling.
3) Thomas Gilman, Iowa, 125 8-0 5 falls, 3 techs
Gilman may, ultimately, succumb to the same problem Nolf has given he doesn’t have a national title yet and 125 doesn’t have a lot of proven wrestlers for him to beat. Still, Gilman is a senior, which may give him a bump. The past four Hodge winners, and seven of the last eight have been seniors. While it isn’t in the criteria, this award is vulnerable to voters taking additional information into consideration, such as rewarding a senior for a great career. Gilman should have great bonus point numbers, but unless Retherford, Dean, and Nickal all have a loss, he’ll probably come up short. If those three all lose, it will be interesting to see if the voters turn to Gilman over Nolf, especially if their dominance numbers are similar. I think they will.
2) Zain Retherford, Penn State, 149 8-0 7 falls, 1 tech
There were plenty of fans who thought Retherford deserved the Hodge last season. He won the online fan voting, which accounted for two of the 45 actual votes, but the situation he ran into last season could bite him again in 2017. There is no doubt that Retherford’s pin rate and dominance will be where a Hodge winner’s should be all year. That he is now a defending NCAA champion will also boost his stock. 149 adds Micah Jordan (Ohio State) which may give Retherford a strong rival that he didn’t have in 2015-16, but we’ll have to wait and see if that materializes. Unfortunately for Retherford, there is another spectacular, potential three-time NCAA champion dominating a different weight class this season. Retherford will almost certainly be deserving of the Hodge at year’s end. The big question is, will Dean deserve it more?
1) Gabe Dean, Cornell, 184 12-0 10 falls, 1 tech, 1 major
Dean’s only non-falls of the year came against top-10 opposition and he still managed a 16-3 major and a 19-4 tech-fall in those matches. The two-time NCAA champion has gone to another level this season and has a number of factors working in his favor in regards to the Hodge. First, he is a senior on track to become a three-time NCAA champion and four-time All-American. Second, he is wrestling in one of the toughest weights in the country. Third, there is a very real chance that he finishes his career by beating an undefeated Nickal for the national title. If that match happens, and the two have the kind of numbers they look like they’ll have based on their early season paces, they may as well put the Hodge trophy on display mat side as the winner will be taking it home. Even if Nickal stumbles somewhere along the way, Dean is the favorite.